Thursday, January 27, 2005

The House Judiciary Committee chairman introduced a bill to clamp down on illegal aliens’ use of driver’s licenses and to give judges more discretion to deny claims of asylum, beginning the new Congress’ first fight over immigration.

Hours after President Bush called for action on his guest-worker program, which would give illegal aliens now in the country temporary legal status, Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. introduced a bill to clamp down on illegal aliens’ ability to live and work under the radar by restricting their ability to obtain and use driver’s licenses.

“American citizens have the right to know who is in their country, that people are who they say they are and that the name on the driver’s license is the real holder’s name, not some alias,” said Mr. Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin Republican.

“The 9/11 hijackers could have used their passports to board the plane, but only one did. And why was that? Those murderers chose our driver’s licenses and state IDs as a form of identification because these documents allowed them to blend in and not raise suspicion or concern,” he said.

Even as that legislative fight was brewing, another battle was joined over funding for immigration security.

Mr. Sensenbrenner and four other House committee chairmen sent a letter calling on Mr. Bush to change his mind and fully fund the 2,000 new U.S. Border Patrol agents called for in the intelligence overhaul bill that Mr. Bush signed into law last month.

The letter followed comments this week by departing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who said Mr. Bush will fall short of that goal in the budget he will propose next month.

Mr. Sensenbrenner’s new bill includes four of the provisions that he fought for but which were dropped from the final intelligence overhaul bill last month.

The bill would fill a gap in the fence on the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, would extend the law so that terrorism-related grounds for excluding someone from entering the United States also become grounds for deportation for those already here and would revamp the asylum system to make it easier for judges to deny a claim for asylum.

But its major focus is to crack down on illegal aliens’ ability to obtain and use driver’s licenses.

The measure requires that any driver’s license used as a form of identification to a federal official, such as a Transportation Security Administration screener at an airport, meet national standards that include a check on whether the holder is in the country legally.

The bill doesn’t force states to change their laws, but makes driver’s licenses from such states inadmissible for federal identification purposes.

The bill has 114 Republican co-sponsors and one Democrat, Rep. Lincoln Davis of Tennessee.

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, will introduce a similar bill in the Senate, although his spokesman said they are still working on the exact language of his version.

Meanwhile, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the Government Reform Committee, announced his own stand-alone bill yesterday just on the driver’s licenses. Mr. Davis said he supports Mr. Sensenbrenner’s bill, but wants to see a specific vote just on the driver’s license issue.

Rep. Jane Harman of California, who as the top Democrat on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence led her party on the intelligence overhaul bill, said Mr. Sensenbrenner’s bill is not needed.

She said the bill passed in December does enough by requiring states to create tamper-proof driver’s licenses and allowing the Transportation Security Administration to decide what documents can be used by passengers to board airplanes.

Several immigration advocacy groups also weighed in against the bill, arguing that it is a broad-brush approach that groups most illegal aliens together with terrorists.

“We all agree that our immigration system is broken. However, making immigrants the problem is not the solution,” said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “We need comprehensive immigration reform that will legalize hard-working immigrants and regularize the flow of workers across our borders, so that our government can focus its resources on those who mean us harm.”

Both Mr. Sensenbrenner and a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois said his bill will get a vote within three weeks and then be attached to the first must-pass piece of legislation to leave the House. The first such bill appears to be an emergency spending bill.

Senate Republican leaders though are not necessarily on board with that plan.

“I don’t know that that will be necessarily the first must-pass piece of legislation,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said Tuesday. “Signals have been sent that they want to move with some elements of immigration attached to it. But I have not talked about whether or not they’re going to do that on the supplemental.”

Mr. Sensenbrenner said he has not heard support or opposition from the White House, but said he can’t imagine the president turning it down. White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said Mr. Bush has “always said he’s willing to work with Congress” on these provisions.

For his part, the president yesterday said one of his priorities this year is to pass an overhaul of immigration.

“I believe it’s necessary to reform the immigration system,” he said, touting his guest-worker program that would allow new workers from abroad, and those now here illegally, to win renewable three-year work permits.

He said he thinks the proposal will help security by cutting down on criminals who profit in trafficking of illegal immigrants and by allowing authorities to focus on terrorists.

But Mr. Sensenbrenner said Mr. Bush hasn’t submitted any legislation and the “devil is in the details.”

He also said he wants to keep the debate on his bill from spilling over into a broader immigration debate.

“Well, again I think they’re making a mistake by trying to use this as a horse to get more controversial provisions enacted,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said.

“That would be a big mistake and would probably jeopardize the passage of any reform that is designed to increase security, as well as reforms that are designed to make our immigration laws more workable,” he said.

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